Why did most Indians find themselves alone and without state support while facing illness, death, loss of livelihood, displacement and poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic? It is because the Indian government’s response at every stage was primed by a “compulsive need to maintain a positive political image,” argue journalist Vidya Krishnan and public health specialist Sarah Nabia, in a forthcoming anthology A View From The Margins. The anthology has writings by forty authors who have documented the first year of the pandemic in India. The book will be published by Manohar Booksin November 2021.
In the following excerpt from a chapter in the anthology, Krishnan and Nabia trace the Indian government’s decisions, from March 2020 to the second half of 2021, to find that politics eclipsed evidence-based policy in its actions.
On 3 February 2020 a weekly report from National Centre for Disease Control recorded three positive cases of COVID-19 in India, all from Kerala, one of the few states diligently screening people at airports. The NCDC, an agency with most expertise to track the virus, would not publish a single report for the rest of 2020. As of August 2021, around four million Indians may have died from coronavirus, according to a study released by Centre for Global Development, while official figures have under-reported deaths by at least a factor of ten and the government celebrates its “successful handling” of the first wave of the pandemic in the report Chasing the Virus: A Public Health Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic In India. The central government took on the difficult task of organising a pandemic response in a developing country like India—where even in non-emergency times the health system lacks the capacity to cater to populations in rural and conflicted areas—and made it harder still.